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August 22, 2005

The Bow, 2005

bow.gifOne aspect of Kim Ki-duk's filmmaking that I continue to find problematic is his penchant for introducing elements of pseudo-mythical orientalism in his films: a kind of exoticized mélange of stereotypical, yin-yang images of Eastern culture that would have audiences believe that when a Buddhist priest attains enlightenment, he also acquires a certain level of physical dexterity and knowledge of hand combat techniques to earn his nth degree martial arts black belt (as in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring) or that there is a practical side to the art of Zen that, when mastered, can be applied to such nefarious activities as breaking and entering into people's homes (and seducing the lady of the house) without ever getting caught (as in 3-Iron). When introduced unobtrusively within the context of a better developed story, they are minor irritations in an otherwise commendable work. But when inserted as integral elements to propel an underformed narrative and reinforce ambitious, ephemeral themes that, when taken into root context, sink into the abyss of rationalized (and perhaps even morally justified) transgression, then no amount of evocative visuals or impeccable, aesthetic construction can redeem this inextricably mired concoction of half-baked philosophy and herb shop spirituality.

Such is the case with his latest offering The Bow, a film that combines familiar Kim elements of intimate isolation, triangular (romantic) conflict, and surrogate acts of transcendence. The opening sequence of the old man transforming his archery bow into a traditional bowed musical instrument by inserting a small drum and a wooden bridge provides a foreshadowing of this quasi-Zen holistic balance, a heavy-handed juxtaposition that quickly transforms from the sublime to the ridiculous when a weekend fisherman asks to have his fortune read: a bizarre fusion of divining ritual and vaudeville act that involves suspending an innocent, virginal young girl (and his self-anointed future wife) on a swing that is placed on the side of the boat in front of a large painting of Buddha, and target shooting the portrait as the girl precariously swings back and forth. However, even the loopy recurrence of these carnivalesque, fortune-telling sequences could not foretell the indescribably gauche realization and vulgar, transparent symbolism of the film's preposterous and embarrassingly laughable final scene. Rather than validating Kim's entry into a subtler, more artistically mature phase that had been reflected in his recent films since Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring, The Bow instead regurgitates like a bloated self-parody of his earlier work.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 22, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Kim Ki-duk


The belief that "enlightenment... acquires a certain level of physical dexterity" is common in a number of Asian films outside of Kim Ki-Duk. The Martial Arts/Wuxia genre is based upon that belief. Also, Kim has admitted he is no Buddhist. His roots are in Christianity and with this being the case all his films carry its own mysticism. Especially in the case of films like "The Bow", "Bad Guy", "Spring, Summer..." and "Samaria", each film has implications of various world religions but none quite fit. Kim is famous for inserting his own since of (absurd?) morality. It amazes me how often Kim's films polarize even his fans. For me this one is no different in style or theme from say "Bad Guy" or "The Isle".

Posted by: Cevon Smith on Sep 23, 2005 12:32 AM | Permalink

I'd agree that a similar "unconventional morality" theme (for lack of a better term) applies to this film as well, and you're right, with respect to older films like The Isle and Bad Guy, this is no different. But that phase of Kim's work is exactly what I find particularly clunky. What I was trying to convey was that it had seemed from his past three films prior to this one that he seemed to be finally getting into a more restrained and subtler phase, but The Bow is definitely not a step in that direction. Rather, it's regressive towards his earlier, heavy-handed work.

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 23, 2005 9:06 AM | Permalink

For me, 3-Iron, lifts itself beyond the mundane and as you've put 'nefarious'. Disconnected individuals contrasted to an ideal form of relation (love? genuine empathy?) to the intrusion of the former on the latter, as a perpetual eventuality.
Apart from this, I've just watched one other - Spring Summer...

Would really like to read your take on 3-Iron but the link here seems defunct. I hope you don't mind this pointer...

And why is it, if I may ask, are no films of Chan-wook Park as yet :)...Please do write about them...


Posted by: Arthi V on Oct 07, 2009 11:01 AM | Permalink

Hi Arthi, I really disliked the way Kim equates breaking and entering as some kind of zen art. Time was pretty much my last attempt at trying to engage with his work.

As for Park, I've only seen Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but both were at film festivals, and as usual, I start getting behind on my writing. Suffice it to say, by the time I was up to writing on those films, I had pretty much forgotten a lot of the details. I liked both of them, but nothing that has really stayed with me.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Oct 07, 2009 3:51 PM | Permalink

Hmmmm....Thanks for the quickie reply...:)

Posted by: Arthi V on Oct 08, 2009 12:38 AM | Permalink

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